The Lost Art: Butcher Shop / by Tom Gavin

(Written for the Bulletin, by Apartment Number 9)

"The more things change, the more they stay the same."

--Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

We're not sure Mr. Karr was referring to grilling meat in his famous quote, but we are sure he'd agree that since the dawn of time man has gathered around an open flame to cook meat. This maybe be one of the oldest rituals in history, and although our loin cloths may have been replaced by trousers and open fires replaced by stainless steel grills, the spirit and the camaraderie remain much the same. 

Let's face it, Gentlemen. The times have changed. Gone are the days of culinary division, where men would happily swill whiskey on porches and smoke-filled rooms while wives prepared elaborate meals. Now men swill whiskey over stoves and grills with the know-how to cook a proper steak or at least the know-how to cook a few decent meals. And this is a good thing.

If you're having trouble relating, or haven't mastered your grill, no worries. We recently stopped by Gepperth's--the oldest butcher shop in Chicago--and spoke to Otto Demke, who has been working there since he was 13. Needless to say, he knows what the hell he's talking about. 



Marbling: You need to know this word. These are the lighter colored lines of fat on the meat and when it comes to your wallet and quality, the more marbling the better. Otto was pretty blunt about it; "You wanna have a good amount of marbling. Prime will always have more marbling, the Choice will have less, and you don't even wanna go down from there."


Cut: Knowing what cut of meat you prefer is half the battle. "95% of guys are going to like the ribeye best. Ribeye is always a tender piece of meat, always well marbled." I tend to agree with Otto here. It's called a Ribeye, because it comes from the rib--duh--which provides more flavor and is more pronounced when you have a "bone-in" cut. The next cut on the list is "Strip" or "New York Strip"--the name traces back to 1837 to Delmonico's restaurant in New York City, who proclaimed itself "America's first fine dining establishment." Thankfully this cut of meat is now widely available, and delicious in it's own right. When the bone is left in, then you have a "Porterhouse." Starting to ring a bell? A cut Otto also recommends a "Sirloin cut." "Sirloin is actually very tasty, more so in my opinion than strip. It is has less marbling, but it shouldn't be looked over." 

Cooking/Grilling: Everyone has their own way and method of cooking steak that is either developed over time, or passed down from generation to generation. Although my father and grandfather prefer the grill, I've long found the skillet to be the most effective and delicious way to cook steak. If you don't take my word for it, take Otto's and "preheat your oven to 325, then get a heavy-duty pan, like a cast iron, and get it really hot." Seriously, put the heat on 8 or 9 and do yourself a favor and buy some peanut oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Sear the steak for five minutes on one side, flip, then sear for three minutes on the other. If you want to get fancy or boost the flavor, take an inch cube of butter and melt it in the pan, then scoop it over the steak. Now take the steak off the pan, pour the liquid butter on top, and put it in the oven for 8 minutes. When it comes to the grill the same high-heat principle remains. "Get it as hot as you can. Put the steak on and you should see it sizzle right away. I like to go 5 minutes, on one side, and five on the other, but that's on my grill." This is a great point. You can't take a formula that works on someone's grill and expect it to be identical--take your time and experiment in order to get it right. After removing the steak, allow it to rest for a few minutes. Go grab a beer, or a full-bodied red wine--obviously big-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon pairs excellently, and if you're feeling celebratory spring for a bottle of Cote-Rotie. Then sit down and enjoy your work. 


Type: Unlike steak, sausages are often blends of meat and spices--generally made by your butcher. At Gepperth's they make combinations that fit every preference and it can be daunting to choose from.  "I grind pork shoulder mostly and depending on the sausage, I'll do a course or fine grain. Italian sausage is more course, Sheboygan sausage is more fine. Then we'll add in our spices." These sausages can run the gamut from sweet to very spicy, and like anything in life, it's up to you to figure what suits. 

Cooking/Grilling: Whether you're outside on the grill or in the kitchen, obtaining and maintaining the proper heat level is key. "On the skillet don't keep your heat too high, more medium like 5 or 6--same with the grill. They take about 20 minutes to cook through." Otto settled an age-old argument and told me "never boil sausage, because you lose too much flavor in the water." I tried this as soon as I arrived at home, and trust me, it makes all the difference. As the sausages cool, pour a weiss beer, or a lager and if you're so inclined, break out a favorite mustard. 


Type: The traditional ground chuck burger we've all enjoyed still holds the top spot when it comes to sales, but I learned there is a whole galaxy of pre-made combinations offered by butchers everywhere. "We do a bacon-Cheddar burger, we do a sirloin burger, we do mini-burgers, like sliders. One of my favorites, and we sell a lot of them in the summer, is the chuck, short-rib and brisket burger. We have customers who don't even season them." I asked if someone could request a special burger and he said most butchers would happily make anything. "Sure, if you want lamb and chuck, or veal and chuck, we'll make it. That's why we're called a 'service market." Next time you're having company over, it may be worth it to step outside the box and put your imagination to work…

Cooking: Much like sausage, you should keep your skillet or grill on medium or you'll risk over-charring the outside without properly cooking the middle. Depending on your your tastes, 10 to 15 minutes will do the trick. Otto mentioned how cheese can help "hold the patty together" on the grill, which important, because we're making burgers, not sloppy Joes. 

The next time you get the urge to grill, do yourself a favor and go out of your way to a local butcher. Not only will you have the pleasure of consulting with individuals who've dedicated their lives to all things meat, you'll also have higher-quality and more likely than not, one-of-a-kind options. It's the same reason why you buy shell cordovan shoes, a Rolex, or a nice car; life is simply too short for mediocrity.